6 out of 10

Release Date: 10th October 2014

Director: Yann Demange (Top Boy (TV) / Dead Set (TV) / Secret Diary of a Call Girl (TV))

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Killian Scott, Barry Keoghan, Martin McCann, Babou Ceesay, Corey McKinley, Sam Hazeldine, Paul Popplewell with David Wilmot and Paul Anderson

Writer: Gregory Burke

Trailer: ’71

Review below by Matt Usher aka Joe Pesci II



One thought on “’71

  1. ‘71 – review by Matt Usher aka Joe Pesci II

    Viewed purely as an adventure film this is a tense, exciting thriller which gets bogged down by its own logistics later on. But you can’t look at it purely as an adventure film because of the very specific title. Had it been more generic (UNLOVED HEROES or GARY’S WAR or EVERYONE WANTS HIM DEAD) this problem wouldn’t arise. In giving it the title ’71 the film-makers are saying the film is a representation of events from 1971. But the film itself doesn’t pretend to be about the year or a look at any particular event therein. It’s a fictional story which happens to be set in Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles.

    Our hero, played by Jack O’Connell, is a young soldier posted to the newly troubled Belfast. Almost immediately his squad runs into a riot and he gets left behind. We follow him through a nightmarish night as he tries to keep away from the Republicans who want to kill him, and, later on, the undercover English agents who also want to kill him because he knows too much.

    The film is strongest when it concentrates on O’Connell’s increasing isolation and fear. On the one hand he’s wandering around perfectly normal streets where normal people live; on the other hand, everyone wants to kill him and he couldn’t be more vulnerable. In the past I’d only seen O’Connell play cheeky chappy bad boys which he does well but wearingly. As a brave, scared, ordinary soldier he’s down to earth and believable, and he doesn’t fall back on any irksome mannerisms. In fact the film isn’t just at its strongest when he’s on screen, it comes almost to a crashing halt whenever he’s off-screen. Which, unfortunately, is much of the last portion of the film.

    There are some powerful moments – the initial riot (a street in Sheffield doubling for the Falls Road) is disturbing and disorienting, and the bit in the pub is particularly impressive, mixing several conflicting moods without a hitch. But then a Big Thing happens, our hero becomes one of the walking wounded (well, not even walking), and the film runs out of steam. So the film’s focus shifts onto the identically moustachioed men (an IRA boss and a British agent) trying to kill our hero from opposite sides of the divide.

    The film’s lop-sided structure means that the subsidiary characters aren’t dealt with particularly well. Our hero’s best buddy (doomed earlier than expected), colleagues and boss all go for nothing. Meanwhile, as O’Connell has less to do, henchmen mill about and the film moves unconvincingly into conspiracy thriller territory.

    Early on the film does attempt to illustrate the tortuous situation that existed/exists in Northern Ireland. And it does it through character (there’s the little boy who has already been indoctrinated and is clearly destined for a life and death of violence, and there’s the good Samaritans who endanger themselves in helping our hero). But after a while the film gets bored with all that and concentrates on Machiavellian plotting. The film makes a good attempt at marrying the domestic setting with the desperate situation (the knocked-through terrace for example) but in the end details and issues become subservient to a plot which kicks in too late. Ultimately it turns into an episode of 24: Jack’s on the run from his own side because he’s too principled, and he’s also trying to get away from the other side because it’s the other side.

    In the end we don’t learn much about Ireland, or our protagonist, or the army or anything. We’re left with a generic story about a soldier behind enemy lines (albeit unusually urban and normal enemy lines). Going down this route means the film doesn’t in the end look at the question it looked like it was going to look at: what was the British army’s presence in Northern Ireland meant to achieve and what does it achieve?

    Early on ‘71 does an admirable job showing why the Irish hate the British, and vice versa, and why some Irish hate other Irish, and vice versa. But then our hero has a brief chat with a girl where he reveals that the people of Derbyshire (like him) don’t really get on the people of Nottinghamshire, and no-one knows why. And that’s the bit where all the sensible liberal people in the audience are meant to nod sagely and agree that the whole thing is a mess and Ireland would just be better if (a) everyone was nicer to each other or (b) someone blew the province up. It’s a ridiculous dereliction of what the film should be about. Obviously the film can’t solve the Northern Ireland issue, but it ends up effectively saying why can’t they just stop it?, even though the film has already shown why: the cultural, political, patriotic and religious divides between two communities which share geographical space, a history of violence, favouritism, terrorism, oppression, torture, and murders occurring at funerals. Yes, it really is as silly as this Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire feud. (There is some sarcasm present in the preceding sentence.)

    Despite its title and subject matter, this is really an escapist film with pretensions. Escapist films generally feature a hero whose intervention leads to happiness for the downtrodden and disaster for the dictators. ’71 pretty much does the opposite but still manages to have a simplistic outlook. Its message seems to be ‘don’t get involved and it’ll all be all right somehow maybe fingers crossed’. In other words it’s really about Iraq, articulating the not particularly helpful view that maybe things would have been better if the British hadn’t got involved, which is easily said but not particularly illuminating. As the conflict with Da’Esh/Syria/ISIS etc is about to enter a new phase, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best isn’t going to help anyone, and films like ’71 should nail their colours to the mast and say what they mean, particularly if it’s something we don’t want to hear.

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